By Patrick O’Brien
In musical theater, the microphone is a mixed blessing. With it, a performer can be heard over the loudest rock band and can afford to be quiet in a 1,000-seat house. But the microphone presents its own issues, both technical and philosophical.
Consider Theo Ubique. The company snatched up acclaim at their old digs off the Morse stop with the power of intimacy and purely acoustic performances. How much of that specialness can they carry over into their new space on Howard, where microphones and a full sound system are now at their disposal? With their previous production, Hedwig, that wasn’t a pressing issue — cranking it to 11 was the name of the game. But what about a delicate chamber musical like Michael John LaChiusa’s Hello Again?
Well, it’s mixed.
On the one hand, everyone involved does very well with LaChiusa, who’s not the easiest to present. He’s a divisive figure in musical theater—take the “unhummable” and “inaccessible” criticism lobbed at Stephen Sondheim and triple that. But Hello Again is probably his most accessible piece, an elegant daisy chain of love, lust, could’ve-beens, and almost-was’s stretching across the twentieth century.
Drawing from Arthur Schnitzler’s play La Ronde, LaChiusa also pinches that play’s central conceit: one actor is carried over into the next vignette of 10. Thus, a Whore meets a Soldier sometime around 1900; the Soldier meets a Nurse in the midst of World War II; and so on, until a Senator meets the Whore again for the first time in the here-and-now.
As stated, musically, everyone does well. In particular: Neala Barron (whose resume is studded with LaChiusa shows) and Molly LeCaptain, who each get the two songs from the score that have become staples in the contemporary repertoire, “Mistress of the Senator” and “Tom,” respectively. For her part, Nora Navarro’s Nurse shows off fantastic pipes and probably underscores the musical’s social point the most: having been seduced and carelessly dumped by the Soldier in the 40s, she reclaims her power over a pampered Student 20 years later. Equally as affecting is Max Cervantes and Marco Tzunux. In the 70s, the former’s a Writer who sees the world in flattering camera shots; the latter’s a Young Thing, somehow jaded and dim, wholly resistant to the Writer’s impulse to, well, rewrite him.
Brenda Didier, directing and choreographing, is also no stranger to LaChiusa, having hosted his Wild Party about five years prior. Here, she again directs confidently, finding the strands that tie these vignettes into a whole. And opportunities to serve as music director on a score as varied and lushly orchestrated as this one are rare, but we still have Jeremy Ramey, thankfully.
On the other hand…
On press night, the sound system was working spectacularly, and every note and word could be heard through the speakers. Not a problem, except — at least from one particular spot in the house — we’re not hearing any of it from the actors, who, befitting Theo, are rarely less than 10 feet away. The effect was quite distancing, and that could almost work, maybe, to take an audience’s mind off all the sex and consider the implications of the sex instead. Here, it was just a case of overamplification, and the distance keeps us at an arm’s length, which is probably not something you want for an intimate musical written by a composer often labeled as distancing.
A sound system can certainly be re-calibrated, but this does suggest Theo may yet have growing pains ahead in their new home that go beyond technical issues. Can they reestablish their trademark for intimate, powerhouse performances in this larger space with more resources?
They have a whole season again, but we’ll be saying “Hello again” soon to check in.
Theo Ubique Cabaret theatre presents “Hello Again” through November 3 at 721 Howard Street, Evanston. More information and tickets are found here.